There's Something About George W.

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If George W. Bush is at all worried about not taking part in the couple of GOP presidential-candidate debates so far, he should take heart from an Oscar Wilde quip: "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about." That was not the case Sunday eveging in Tempe, Ariz., when four Republican presidential candidates met in a televised forum, ostensibly to discuss the issues facing the nation. In fact, Alan Keyes, Orrin Hatch, Steve Forbes and John McCain never really got moving on any substantive exchanges, as they were far too busy huffing and puffing over the conspicuous absence of front-runner George W. Bush. "We're here answering questions," Forbes griped. Where was Bush?

At a memorial service for the Texas A&M students who died last week, according to the Associated Press. Taking a swipe at the other candidates, Mike Hull, Bush's Arizona campaign director, haughtily informed the news service of the Texas governor's commitment to his constituents, simultaneously managing to characterize any questions regarding Bush's no-show as utterly compassionless. And in fact, although you'd never know it from all the ruffled feathers, Bush never planned to be at Sunday's debate; he'll make his much-anticipated debut at the December 2 GOP event in New Hampshire.

Not that Bush missed much. Even when their kvetching over W.'s absence subsided, the other candidates weren't lighting any new fires: Keyes went on about America's lost moral compass and Hatch had very little newsworthy to say. On the other hand, in George's absence, a newly aggressive Forbes homed in on Bush's policies. "In nearly all of his answers," says TIME Washington correspondent John Dickerson, "Steve Forbes took Bush to task on specific policy issues. Forbes has hinted at his disagreements with Bush, but last night was a direct and frontal assault from Forbes, and it gives us a sense of the kind of battle we'll see between these two in Iowa." And far from enjoying his home-court advantage, Arizona senator McCain looked vaguely uneasy in the bright lights — perhaps still nursing his wounds from Arizona governor Jane Hull's endorsement of you-know-who.